Political Reform: The Way to Go

A Look at the Language of the 18th Party Congress Report

Sections of the 18th National Party Congress report that have justifiably generated the most attention are references to political reform.

Anyone who did not harbor unrealistic hopes about the congress and its outcome can read the report and find indications of progress in the area of political reform.

In past years, the very notion of “political reform” was a kind of taboo. Its mere suggestion was considered risky, and there was no meaningful discourse with a viable framework. Leftists would have been very happy to completely eliminate this phrase from the nation’s vocabulary.

The fact that the party congress report contains the idea sends a clear signal that there is no question about the necessity of political reform. What is open for discussion now is how current institutions can reform. People who care about political reform must pinpoint the trends and ride the tide.

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General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping (front), delivers a speech as (left to right) Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng, and Wang Qishan listen in the Great Hall of the People on November 15, 2012.

The core of political reform is democracy, and the key to its development will be strategic institutions that support this paradigm. Under the current political framework, the congress report highlighted two points: Make sure people exert power via the people’s congress, and improve the political consultancy mechanism.

It seems cliché that whenever officials talk about democracy, what follows next is mention of the people’s congress. But this time, there was more substance to their words. Unlike previous party congress reports, the latest document said legislators should enhance their supervision over government operations, as well as government budget and spending reviews, including off-book revenues. Implementing this by next year, when the next National People’s Congress convenes, would mark significant progress toward introducing democratic processes to fiscal policymaking.

Another important step is to reduce the number of party cadres in the legislative body. Currently, party cadres count for 70 percent of the National People’s Congress, and many are at the same time government officials. The congress meeting in 2010 established the principle of “equal vote, equal power.” If we see a significant drop in the number of party cadres in the legislative arm, and then a total exit, the “rubber stamp” nature of the legislative body will finally become history.

On the political consultancy mechanism, we have to admit that much is merely perfunctory. The 18th congress report didn’t limit the scope of the consultancy to existing consultative organizations. Instead, it brought forward the idea of “deliberative democracy,” a concept in political science that emphasizes societal discourse in decision-making.

The report laid out several goals, such as improving the working mechanism for deliberative democracy and instituting expansive, multi-layer participation that’s institutionally guaranteed.

In addition to implementing deliberative democracy, we also care about a timetable for getting elections on the congressional agenda. Democracy through deliberative decision-making, with elections and better administrative transparency together, can form a modern democratic political framework.

Another concept that frightens leftists is constitutional government. It simply means using the constitution to limit the abuse of government power. It will be critical to note how the party report affects interpretations of China’s constitution in the future.

The report reiterated that Article 5 of the constitution states “no organization or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the constitution and the law.” It further prohibits any move to “replace law with words, trample the law with power, or abuse the law for private interests.” Once passed by the party congress, this report and this sentence clearly prohibits immunity for those in power and means an official’s written note can no longer brush aside the force of law.

The report goes on to mention that rule of law will be established and “human rights will be respected and guaranteed” when China moves into a moderately prosperous society in 2020. Considering that this is only seven years from now, these goals offer hope. Of course implementation hinges on thorough plans and determined action.

China as a nation in transition bears signs of an authoritarian society. This makes it all the more crucial to have clear checks on power. As with previous reports, the new document reiterates the principle of checks and balances, but the measures it charts are more practical, to “guarantee the people’s right to know, right to political participation, expression, and supervision.” Thus, power should be exerted in an open and standardized manner, and there should be transparency for the party, government offices, the judiciary, and other institutions.

It’s unfortunate that a sunshine law requiring government officials to disclose personal assets was not included in the report. But it does mention the public’s right to know and improving government transparency, giving us reason for optimism, as well as reasons to continue to call for such laws.

The 18th congress was no doubt of paramount importance. This period marks a once-in-a-decade change of China’s leadership. And it takes place during an eventful year that began with a local police chief running to a U.S. consulate to claim asylum.

Despite its complexities, the report follows the basic principles of Reform and Opening-up, highlights significant reform measures, and leaves room for further top-level planning and design on political reform. Reform is always easier said than done. Anyone who cares about our country and stands on its soil should see opportunities here for the fight to improve political governance.